BOOKS MARCH 26, 2013
Immigrant literature—that rather crass term—has come to mean literature by the immigrant. But the effects of migration are, of course, felt not just by those doing the moving and resettling, but also by those who receive them. And yet, for every Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Gish Jen, Edwidge Danticat, or Julia Alvarez—or any of the notables who write, loosely, from a non-native-born perspective—it’s hard to name an American author who speaks for the settled communities where new arrivals land. The minority perspective is, in fact, the dominant one when it comes to the literature of immigration, assimilation, and cultural adaptation.
Novelists, of course, can’t be blamed for hesitating to inhabit the other perspective. Native-born writers who would never pretend to understand the experience of immigrating probably don’t want to write a book that emphasizes their privilege—or shows their ignorance. But Elizabeth Strout has approached these tensions head-on in her new book, The Burgess Boys. The novel takes place in small-town Maine, where an influx of Somali and Bantu immigrants is upending a conservative and insular way of life.
In a way, Strout is picking up on themes she began to explore in her last book. The Pulitzer Prize–winning Olive Kitteridge, a collection of closely linked stories set in Maine, also centers on questions of community and censure. It follows the big-hearted, small-minded Olive, who always believes she knows what’s right, and who tries, with stormy passion but limited success, to impose it on the world. In every episode, there’s a sharp simplicity to the stories’ juxtaposition of town and city, old and new. The traditional Mainers share an unspoken understanding about what life is and what it lacks; summer residents, grown children who have moved south, and the rest of the outside world are hardly worth discussing.
Like Olive Kitteridge, The Burgess Boys is set in prickly, normative Maine—an appropriate stage for this story.1 The whitest state in the U.S. at almost 97 percent, it’s also the fourth-oldest (projected to reach second-oldest by 2020) and one of two with a declining population; opportunities for young people are few. Against this backdrop, the titular Burgess brothers, Bob and Jim, learn that their sad, naïve 19-year-old nephew (the son of their sister Susan) has thrown the head of a pig into a mosque where Somalis were praying.2 The unfolding family crisis draws the brothers away from their lives in New York City, back to the austere New England landscape of their childhoods. By situating the novel in the messy dilemma surrounding contemporary refugees, Strout establishes The Burgess Boys as a more ambitious book than Olive Kitteridge. At points, she seems tentative with this unfamiliar material, but for the most part she maintains her signature lyricism and sensitivity, delivering a book that is powerfully local and human, if less than groundbreaking.
The minority perspective is, in fact, the dominant one when it comes to the literature of immigration.
To get at the complicated interactions of insiders and outsiders, Strout goes inside the minds of an array of characters. Voicing the fears of traditional Maine is Susan, a lonely optometrist whose husband walked out years ago. An outsider in her own community, she exemplifies the way prejudice can play off longstanding vulnerability. Noting the help that wealthy members of the town have provided to the Somalis, Susan complains that she got nothing when her husband left her. “Nobody offered to buy me a refrigerator. Nobody offered to buy me a meal. And I was dying, frankly. I was lonelier than I bet these Somalians are. They have family crawling all over them.” Susan is self-righteous, sometimes venomous, and, despite it all, sympathetic. Though she never fully faces up to her biases, she grows over the course of the book: Where at first she reflexively accuses the Somali community of clannishness, in the end, she recognizes fear and pride in the Burqa’d women that equal her own.
Bob Burgess, who lives unpretentiously in Brooklyn and works at Legal Aid, presents a more self-aware range of reactions. When he returns to Maine and finds himself in the role of protector for his fatherless nephew, Zach, Bob is shocked to feel unanticipated prejudices. In one scene, he watches a Somali man on a road in Maine, and although he’d “had a brief career there defending criminals of various colors and religions … believed in the magnificence of the Constitution and the rights of the people, all people, to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” he finds himself thinking “ever so fleetingly but he thought it: Just as long as there aren’t too many of them.”
Bob cracks down on this ripple of discomfort by reading about the war in Somalia and the difference between Somalis and Bantus. Internally, he struggles to square his compassion for his downtrodden family members, especially the “sad-sack” Zach, with the awareness that the Somali community has suffered far worse horrors. In conversation with his family and others, though, he wages a campaign against ignorance. When his ex-wife and close friend Pam says she can’t respect a way of life that sanctions female genital mutilation, Bob accuses her of “‘reading about the most inflammatory aspects of their culture in some book club, then getting to hate them for it.’” Pam retorts, ‘“You Burgess boys. Defense attorneys for the whole crappy world.’” Cycling between Bob, Susan, the hypocritical Pam, and a range of other characters, the book explores this clash of worlds from the insiders’ perspectives.
But Strout takes on a whole other challenge: She tells parts of the story in the voice of Abdikarim Ahmed, a Somali café owner. Through him, Strout fills in the other side of the story in poignant, but largely predictable ways. He remembers that his eldest daughter did not know how to use an escalator when she first stepped off the plane; “the moving stairs called an escalator were so frightening they could only stare at them and get pushed aside by others who pointed and laughed.” When he hears of his grandsons’ excellent grades, he’s torn because “Flawless English meant they could disappear as full Americans, but it gave them a sturdiness too.” Rarely, if ever, do Abdikarim’s thoughts cease to remind us of his outsider status. This may be because he himself never forgets, but his character feels thin, an effort to represent the experience of thousands by reaching for the most conventional signifiers.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the content of his thoughts that feels forced; his voice, unlike the other characters’, never fully comes to life. His diction isn’t quite right, a clumsy mix of formal and simplistic even though it’s supposed to represent his private thoughts—it feels like a cumbersome stereotype, and like a barrier to the full realization of his character. (The trace of a “Down East” Maine accent in Bob’s thoughts, on the other hand, adds texture and rings true.)
More crucially, Strout hesitates to imbue Abdikarim with human flaws. He plays a martyr-like role as the only member of the Somali community to recognize Zach’s innocent nature, and his ineffable goodness begs for a counterweight that Strout never provides. Her other characters have weaknesses: Susan privately wonders whether her temper and depression are to blame for Zach’s strangeness; Bob is self-defeating, too passive, and an alcoholic. Strout understands them. She seems comfortable judging and redeeming them. But when it comes to Abdikarim—whose culture and experience are foreign to her—she holds back, and the fabric of the novel unravels a little.
Strout throws open the curtains on white New Englanders’ reactions to the immigrants changing the face of their towns. She lays bare their most shameful thoughts, their self-deceptions, their slow and timid reflections; and the resulting characters are more likable for their flaws. But when it comes to the Somali refugees, Strout articulates their memories, their homesickness and fear—and little else. In the end, though Strout is one of contemporary fiction’s best interpreters of human feeling, her seeming lack of confidence undermines her ambitious and commendable project. We could use more “immigrant literature” that trains a smart eye on the convergence of natives and newcomers—from both of their perspectives.